Football practice opened Wednesday, and in 15 short days Friday night lights will return with season openers around the area.
From that Friday, Aug. 26, until Week 9 of the regular season on Oct. 21, teams will battle to be first and bring home a conference championship -- as Geneva did last year and has the past seven.
There's no doubt who was first on the practice field Wednesday, and that would be Brian Casey's Chargers in his second year as Aurora Central coach.
Casey held his version of Midnight Madness Wednesday, holding practice from 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. as soon as the IHSA allows. The Chargers went home, got some sleep, and came back for a 10 a.m. to noon practice.
Casey did the same thing last year, the only difference being this year's Midnight Madness was held at the Aurora Sports Dome instead of the school because of the new sod on the school field.
Building on a 3-6 season last year, Casey can't wait for Year 2.
"We really took a big step forward this summer," Casey said. "We are much further along right now as we begin year two of our system. I think our kids are excited about where we are, and the possibilities we have this season.
"The big key for us will be finishing. We had a hard time last season in the red zone, we struggled in the second half of games. We need to finish drives with scores, we need to finish games to be successful, and our kids understand that. That has been a big sticking point this summer, and I think we are close to turning that corner."
While Aurora Central headed to the Sports Dome Wednesday, Rob Wicinski's Geneva Vikings started their season in a familiar place at Broadview Academy in La Fox.
NIU-bound quarterback Matt Williams leads the returnees from last year's 8-3, Upstate Eight River champs. Geneva has five starters back on offense.
"We are hoping for some inexperienced youngsters to fill in some key positions -- and our success will be how quickly we can get them up to speed," Wicinski said. "We must improve on the defensive side and with only one returning starter it might be a difficult task. Conference looks like a bear, but we are excited about the challenge."
Dan Thorpe and Marmion got its season started with a morning practice Wednesday. The Cadets went 12-2 last year and took second in Class 6A. They will look to a largely new group of players -- 2 starters return on offense, 6 on defense -- to make their own mark after graduated seniors like T.J. Lally and Nick Scoliere led the program to new heights last fall. Their sophomore team tied Montini for the SCC title last year.
"The biggest thing is our commitment in the off-season was tremendous," Thorpe said. "That shows me the kids know what it takes."
Kaneland was the only area team with a better record than Marmion last year, going 12-1 losing only in state semifinals to Montini. Wide receivers Quinn Buschbacher and Sean Carter, defensive back Jake Razo and linemen Ryan Noel and Ben Kovalick are all returning all-conference players.
"We are real excited to be back," coach Tom Fedderly said. "We have a lot of young players that we are very high on and can't wait to see what they can do with pads on."
Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe also is excited, first that problems were worked out that allowed the school to stay open this year, and then to have a talented group of returnees like quarterback Anthony Maddie, wide receivers Chad Beebe, Grayson Roberts and Cory Windle, running back Brandon Mayes, right tackle Josh Kok and linebackers Mitch Holtz, Kenny McCracken and Roman Czerwinski.
"For the first time we have very good skilled guys to go with a very big and strong line," Beebe said. "Should be exciting to watch them play."
St. Charles East will host its mom's practice at 11 a.m. Saturday. Those moms will see coach Mike Field's third St. Charles East team, one that opened last year 0-5 but won 3 of its last 4 games including St. Charles North in the season finale to finish 3-6.
Despite returnees like Joe Hoscheit, Charlie Fisher, Jake Mazanke, Dean Bowen, Tim Leibforth, Jacob Bruce, John Kelley and Carter Reading, Fields knows there are question marks. "We will be young and inexperienced, but optimistic," Fields said.
Mark Gould enters his next-to-last year at St. Charles North with his own share of newcomers.
"Offensively we lost some quality skill guys," Gould said. "What we have coming back isn't bad. We just might be a little young. We've got some pretty good athletes."
Gould said his offensive line, led by seniors Kyle Breith, Dan Cassidy and A.J. Diehl, is the most experienced group on the team. He's also excited to see what a defense anchored by returnees Sam Scorby, Shawn Meaney and Hayden Lewis can do after the unit struggled last year.
"Looks like we will be faster, more aggressive, definitely stronger than last year," Gould said. "Look forward to seeing them on the field."
Both St. Charles schools have two new nonconference games to start the year. The Saints play Cary-Grove and West Aurora; the North Stars Hinsdale Central and Plainfield Central.
Let the countdown to opening night begin.